First census in 1790 reveals the soul of Rhode Island





If you seek to discern the soul of Rhode Island in this census year of 2010, a visit to the Old State House is a good beginning. Here in this 246-year-old building, the state’s forbears were engaged in spirited debate in 1790, the first year that the federal government took count of the American people.

The General Assembly was divided on whether Rhode Island should become the last of the 13 former colonies to ratify the United States Constitution. Supporters of a strong centralized government wanted to approve. Opponents feared too much power in too few hands. Speakers on both sides were impassioned.

Sound familiar?

Richard E. Greenwood, historian and deputy director of the state commission that maintains the Old State House, on Benefit Street, walks the first-floor room where the drama unfolded.

“Rhode Islanders were just as vocal in those days as they are today,” he says.

The constitutional debate was hardly the first to engage our forbears. Money policy and taxation were discussed in this building. So was treason.

“This is where Rhode Island renounced allegiance to King George,” Greenwood says. Rhode Island was the first colony to do so, on May 4, 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. Four years earlier, Rhode Islanders had drawn some of the first blood of the American Revolution when they burned the British revenue ship Gaspee to protest customs laws....


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